I grew up in a foodie family in Tucson, so Chef Janos Wilder has always been a bit of legend for me. And as visitors to Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails can attest, after 34 years of wowing palates, the award-winning chef is still going strong.
Wilder changes the restaurant menu often, both seasonally and as part of Downtown Kitchen’s new Cities of Gastronomy summer menu tour. He says that decision is driven by both a desire to stay seasonal with his ingredients and keep current with what people want to eat. “It’s not only the ingredients that are seasonal,” he says, “but the way they’re prepared is going to change.” For example, in a spring-summer menu, he says, “we emphasize freshness and vitality.” While guests may bemoan the loss of a favorite dish, Wilder says, “If I let myself be guided by that principle, I’d never grow and never change.” Instead, he says, “I make a commitment that anything I add to the menu must be as good or better than what came before.”
We started off our meal with a Tucson Lemonade and a Cuban Sunset cocktail ($9.50 each). The Tucson Lemonade is a bright pink hibiscus lemonade mixed with whiskey instead of the usual vodka or gin. The result is a drink that is significantly darker and less sweet than you might expect, with the right amount of sipability for hot Tucson afternoons. The Cuban Sunset looks like a fruity frozen margarita that somehow acquired a cilantro leaf, but one sip demonstrates how appearances can be deceiving. Habenero-infused vodka mixed with a passion fruit puree is sipped over a salted rim, the cooling fruit juxtaposed against the heat of the chile. Wilder describes his ideal cocktails as well balanced, tasting “fresh and alive,” without too much emphasis on the spirit. You won’t find technique-intensive cocktails at Downtown Kitchen; Wilder prefers to focus on flavor. Regarding both the food and drinks they serve, he says, “I’m not trying to wow you with technique, I’m trying to satisfy you with flavor.”
To accompany our drinks, we ordered the Calamari appetizer ($11 during happy hour, which runs from 4-6 p.m. daily). This is not your normal plate of fried squid: Downtown Kitchen’s version includes fresh watercress, slivered mango, candied ginger, hot roasted Spanish peanuts prepared in a Oaxacan style with red chile and lime, and a green chile vinaigrette. The breading is light and crisp, with just enough salt, and some subtle heat thanks to habanero flour.
Our second appetizer came from the dinner menu: the Baja Gardener’s Tostada ($11). Featuring a mix of raw seasonal produce served atop a creamy layer of Peruano beans and a crisp corn tortilla, the tostada is served chilled. Escabeche-pickled cholla buds and a roasted corn vinaigrette add the finishing touch, and the overall experience felt as light and varied as eating a salad, but with greater cohesion thanks to the beans. Wilder says, “I wanted a different way to present raw spring produce,” pointing to the tostada as a dish that says “spring in Tucson” and provides a sense of place.
Communicating a sense of place is central to Wilder’s culinary goals at Downtown Kitchen. Part of this goal is accomplished through working with Pivot Produce and other suppliers to source local ingredients when possible. A larger part of it, for Wilder, is deliberately crafting dishes that draw on Baja Arizona’s multicultural heritage. “Being representative and honoring who we are is very important to me,” he says. When he opened Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails in 2010, his goal was to create foods that “make a statement about who we are.” He elaborates: “I believe food can be healing. I believe food can make a positive statement about who we are as Americans at our best.” Our diversity “is what makes us all the good things about us,” he says. Wilder strives to serve food that represents the cuisine of immigrants coming to the United States, creating dishes inspired by Mexico and beyond.
This inspiration was apparent in our entrée for the evening, the generously sized Grilled Rib Steak + Chili Colorado. Served sliced and stacked atop black beans and calabacitas con queso with a garnish of salsa fresca and green chile vinaigrette, this steak demonstrated Wilder’s commitment to satisfying, uncomplicated dishes. The smoke and spice from a blend of Anaheim, Ancho, Guajillo, and Poblano chiles combined beautifully with the char from the grill on the steak, while the calabacitas and black beans added texture and variety, and the salsa fresca punctuated each bite with crisp, spicy onions.
We ended our meal with a Dark Chocolate Jalepeño Ice Cream Sundae ($8). This was just as decadent as it sounds: a tall old-fashioned sundae glass, piled high with rich chocolate ice cream whose creamy cold belied a creeping heat of chile on the tongue, with delicate candied pecan bits scattered throughout and a dark chocolate ganache drizzled over the top. Eating it was exhilarating.
When Wilder opened Downtown Kitchen, he was depending on the trust he had built with the community during his time at Janos and J Bar. He credits 30 years of exploring the flavors of Tucson for giving him the confidence and freedom to experiment, but with that he says came the responsibility to not betray his guests’ trust, to “make them smile and give them a delicious and satisfying meal in a way that they might not expect.” The relationships he’s built have helped make Downtown Kitchen an early success story of downtown Tucson’s revitalization, and these days he’s “very enthused to see what a critical mass of people can do,” observing Tucson’s growing food culture and strong emphasis on food justice.
Wilder hopes the Tucson community will take pride in the City of Gastronomy designation, and he’s doing his part through Downtown Kitchen’s annual summer menu tour. After Tucson was designated as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy in 2015, Wilder began featuring the cuisine from sister Cities of Gastronomy during six week long segments throughout the summer. This summer’s tour kicks off with a menu inspired by Dénia, Spain, which will be served from May 30 until July 10, followed by menus inspired by Florianopólis, Brazil (July 18-August 21), Shunde, China (August 22-October 2), and Zahlé, Lebanon (October 3-November 13). The Dénia menu will feature such mouthwatering treats as a melon gazpacho, pork tenderloin with summer cherry compote, and drunken orange polenta cake.
Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails
135 S 6th Ave
Tucson, AZ 85701